The Red Coat

From “Schindler’s List.”© 1993 Universal City Studios,

I cried this week. I forced myself to watch one of the most powerful movies ever made: Schindler’s List. I watched it again for one reason. Last week a principal in Florida was fired for denying the Holocaust ever happened. I would assume that this man had a college education and perhaps a graduate degree. How anyone with even an ounce of education and awareness in 2019 could deny the worst genocide in the history of the world defies explanation. But this man is not alone. There are thugs, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists who question and deny the historicity of the Holocaust. They do so not out of ignorance but out of willful and obstinate hatred. We live in an age when, for many people, facts don’t matter—when all you have to do is to label truth as “fake news” with no regard for the evidence. I suppose that such willful and obstinate hatred was the motivation behind that principal in Florida.

The movie Schindler’s List is in black and white with four exceptions. The movie opens with a family observing Sabbath. We see the color of the flames from the candles. But immediately the color fades and all becomes black and white as the Nazis begin their “liquidation” of the Jews living in the Krakow ghetto. Toward the end of the movie when Schindler encourages a Rabbi to lead the people working in his factory in a Sabbath worship, the color of the flames from the candles returns. Spielberg said that the flames from the candles represent “just a glint of color, and a glimmer of hope”. We also have the little girl in the red coat who appears several times in the film. She manages to slip away from the line of Jews being marched to the trains waiting to take them to their deaths. She hides but is finally discovered. The last time we see the red coat is when her dead body is piled on top of the bodies of other Jews on a cart being taken to a gigantic fire where she with countless others will be consumed. The very end of the movie returns to color as Jews, who have survived because of Schindler’s efforts, and their descendants place stones on the grave of Oskar Schindler, following a Jewish custom of respect and gratitude. We are told at the conclusion of the movie that only four thousand Jews lived in Poland after the war. In 1993, the Jews, who survived because of Schindler’s intervention and their descendants numbered over six thousand. Oskar Schindler was named “Righteous among the Gentiles” in 1993 by the nation of Israel.

The image of the little girl in the red coat is the most powerful symbol in the movie for me. Andy Patrizio of IGN notes that it is when Schindler sees the girl’s dead body in the red coat that he changes, “no longer seeing the ash and soot of burning corpses piling up on his car as just an annoyance.” He now sees a precious and innocent human being—a three-year old little girl ground up in the stupidity and prejudice of a nation that once could boast of Goethe, Bach, and Mozart but has now descended into the demonic depths of unimaginable evil.

For me, the girl in the red coat reminds us that it wasn’t six million Jews who died during the reign of Nazi terror. It was Jewish men and women, boys and girls, toddlers and infants whose combined number was six million Jews.

I see another meaning of the girl in the red coat. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. Most people know that. Those words “six million Jews” have become so familiar that I fear we do not grasp the enormity and the pain of that terrible homicide. For me, the girl in the red coat reminds us that it wasn’t six million Jews who died during the reign of Nazi terror. It was Jewish men and women, boys and girls, toddlers and infants whose combined number was six million Jews. Each of those persons had his or her unique story. They had their own hopes and dreams, experienced their own fears and sufferings, endured their own individual torments, and died their own individual deaths. When we lump all these individuals into one number like “six million,” we tend to overlook the humanity of each victim in the worst genocide in history.

The little girl in the red coat also points to a specificity that must be kept sacred when we consider the victims of prejudice and bigotry. They must not be forgotten, because as the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s why that principal’s denial of the Holocaust concerns me. Yes, he was fired, but he is not an isolated case of such bigotry. [In Italy, there is a Jewish 89-year-old senator named Liliana Segre who was thirteen years old when she was sent to Auschwitz. She survived, but her father and paternal grandparents were killed. Because of the rise of anti-Semitism and racism in Italy and throughout Europe, she asked the government to create a parliamentary committee to combat hate, racism, and anti-Semitism. Her motion was passed by the parliament without a single vote from Italy’s right-wing parties. Just today (November 8, 2019) the news reported that because of her request, she now receives over 200 threats a day and needs police protection! People are naïve to believe that what happened in the 1930s and 1940s could not happen in our time. ] The anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and the consequences of white supremacy so prevalent in the U.S. today, even at the highest levels of what is supposed to be a democratic government “with liberty and justice for all,” are alarming. We should have learned by now that “progress” is not guaranteed in this world. “Inevitable Progress” is a myth that the Twentieth-Century, the most violent and destructive century in the history of the world, utterly demolished once and for all time. Freedom, justice, and decency are not guaranteed. They must be vigilantly protected and practiced.

We will maintain our humanity only when we believe and live as though each person has worth and dignity.

We will maintain our humanity only when we believe and live as though each person has worth and dignity. No religion, IN THEORY, provides a better foundation for the sacred status of humanity than Christianity. We believe that the divine and the human came together in a Jew (Yes, a Jew!) in the eastern edges of the Roman Empire. That Incarnation forever affirms the value of humans. In Christ God takes all of humanity into the Divine Self. The challenge is to incarnate the truth of that faith and, in so doing, to move from theory to compassion (which is love in action) for all. As Christians, what we must do is to ask sincerely how Jesus would have seen and treated the little girl in the red coat (who was after all, his Jewish sister), and then to act accordingly with courage and compassion. Following Jesus means seeing the world through his eyes, hearing the world through his ears, and loving the world through his heart, never forgetting that “the world” is as specific as a little girl in a red coat.

(Please read the earlier post entitled “Crimes of Being” for some additional thoughts about Schindler’s List.)

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